ARABIA, the big, boot-shaped peninsula off the northeast corner of Africa, is one of the hottest and driest regions on earth. It is also extremely rugged. Almost all of it is made up of mountains‚ deserts and immense plains of sand broken by hills. Not a single river crosses it, only dry riverbeds called wadis which quickly carry away the little rain that falls. Water is so scarce that trees and plants can grow only along some of the coasts and in small “islands” of green called oases, mostly found in the wadis, which dot the vast interior. Yet this bleak‚ patched land was once the home of a people, the Semites, who gave the world much of its learning and three of its greatest religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Thousands of years ago some Semitic tribesmen migrated north to the fertile region by the Mediterranean Sea. Over many generations they developed the principles of Judaism, the religion of the Jews. Much later Christianity also came into being there. Before the coming of the third great Semitic faith, Islam, Judaism and Christianity had long been established in Arabia. Most of the people still worshiped the sun, moon, stars and the spirits of hills, caves, rocks, springs and palm trees. They bowed down before the day idols of hundreds of gods, goddesses and demons.
Most Arabians were herdsmen called Bedouins. They roamed endlessly across the empty spaces, looking for water and grass for their camels, goats and sheep. They ate dates and a mixture of flour with water or goat’s milk and slept in tents woven from the hair of camels or goats. They wore flowing head-scarves and long shirts and went barefoot. They owned very little. A Bedouin’s most prized possessions were his camels and his sword.
For the Bedouins were great fighters. Organized by families into clans and by clans into tribes, they warred frequently over precious springs and pasturelands. They admired manliness more than anything else. Sometimes in the evening they would sit for hours, listening spell bound to long poems about heroic deeds. They loved to drink wine and to gamble and although they believed in a great many gods, good and evil, they did not treat any of them with much respect.
The settled farmers, craftsmen, and traders took religion more seriously. Several towns and oases in the north were Christian and others were Jewish. In the most thickly settled and civilized part of the peninsula, Yemen, in the southwest, Jews were especially numerous. Elsewhere, even quite small villages contained a shrine or place of worship sacred to some pagan god.
CITIES OF THE HEJAZ
One part of Arabia that was particularly noted for its holy places was the Hejaz‚ in the west. The Arabic word hijaz means “barrier,” and the mountainous province which bears the name stands like a barrier between the deserts of the interior and the flatlands along the Red Sea. Winding through its mountains was Arabia’s most important caravan route. This road linked spice-growing Yemen with the rich and civilized country of Syria, on the Mediterranean. Because the Hejaz lay about halfway between Yemen and Syria, travelers usually stopped in its cities to break their long journeys. Often they paid a visit to the local shrines and when they left the province they carried word of the shrines to distant places. In this way, the fame of the Hejaz shrines spread. More and more pilgrims came to worship at them during the four months of the holy truce, the yearly period when the Bedouins were forbidden by custom to wage war or to raid towns, oases and caravans.
The merchants of the Hejaz cities welcomed the tired, dust-covered visitors who filed through the city gates on their camels. Every visitor would need food and drink, and some would want lodging. Some might buy the cloths and metal goods the merchants had for sale. Pilgrimages helped business, so the merchants enthusiastically praised the miraculous powers of their holy places. “Visit such-and-such a shrine,” they would say, “and your blind son will surely see again and come back next year for even better luck.”
The largest cities of the Hejaz were Mecca and Medina. Most of the people of Medina were pagans, but many Jews also lived there. Set in an oasis of date palms, Medina was high enough up in the mountains to have a pleasant climate. Mecca, three hundred miles to the south, was not nearly so healthy. It stood in a rocky valley where hardly anything would grow and its people sweltered in the damp heat.
Nevertheless, Mecca was much more important than Medina. Every year its merchants put on a great fair. Visitors came to it from places that required a journey of many days or even weeks. An even greater attraction was Mecca’s great temple, or sanctuary. This low, cube-shaped building stood in the very center of the city, near a well which was also sacred. It was called the Kaaba. At one corner, a sacred black meteorite was lodged in its stone wall. Inside the sanctuary were the images of no less than 360 gods. The principal god was called Allah Taala.
From ancient times the Kaaba had been the most famous shrine in Arabia. According to a legend believed by almost everyone, the original Kaaba had stood in heaven, directly above its duplicate in Mecca. The copy had been built by Adam after he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. The sacred well, the Zemzem, had been kicked open by Ishmael, the legendary founder of the Arab people. Mecca, the holy city, had grown up around the sacred shrine and well.
In the sixth century A.D., the most powerful and influential citizens of Mecca belonged to a tribe called the Quraysh. Not all of the Quraysh were rich; indeed, some of its clans and families were quite poor. The wealthy leaders of the tribe owned almost everything in the city worth owning. They kept a close guard, day and night, on their most valuable piece of property – the Kaaba.